Hard knock death
In the United States of America, in the year 2014, when the country's race relations reached their lowest ebb in what feels like decades, there is a clear value to a film whose protagonist is an African-American child, and for which no attention is paid to that fact. No special pleading, no political messaging. Just a story whose unforced existence guilelessly posits that black kids matter, and can be the subject of any kind of story designed for any kind of audience. This is the good thing about the new remake of Annie. Virtually the only solitary thing that in any way justifies what is otherwise a soul-scarring exercise in the worst traits of 21st Century children's filmmaking. 32 years ago, John Huston made his all-time worst film with an ugly, ill-acted, racist, atonal adaptation of Charles Strause and Martin Charnin's 1977 Broadway musical, and in so doing set a bar low enough that it should have been the easiest thing in the wide world to jump over it. But this new film, written by Will Gluck (who also directs) and Aline Brosh McKenna, manages to dive under that mark without even breaking a sweat. And it is that Rob Marshall's 1999 telefilm remains the only remotely acceptable filmed version of the material, not a pleasant thing to concede for an inveterate old Marshall hater like myself.
Unlike the two earlier films, Annie '14 updates the setting from the Great Depression, and actually manages to do so without completely shitcanning the material in the process. It is not a flawless process: the film sees fit to showcase what it's doing by opening with a cheery redhead named Annie (Taylor Richardson) giving a fluffy little bit of pep to a classroom that jeers at her, upon which her classmate and our actual protagonist, Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis) lifts the room by encouraging the students to provide a rhythmic beat as she presents a grossly ahistorical summary of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This includes, as God is my witness, the notion that the Depression was an object lesson in how people could survive and make lots of money just as long as they were willing to work hard for it. The scene provides an elegant capsule version of everything we should expect for the rest of the film: the Broadway music has been largely supplanted by pop orchestrations, and this Annie absolutely loves the fuck out of the very rich, and has a pandering and broken idea of what grinding poverty looks like. Spoiler: it looks like an enormous multi-bedroom apartment located on the island of Manhattan.
Other than its intoxicated alignment with the 1%, the other major sour note the new Annie strikes comes in the form of its rampant, unapologetic cynicism. This is a nasty-minded movie about everything, including itself: in an effort to inoculate itself against criticisms that musicals are dopey, the film piles on what feel like dozens of jokes at the medium's expense (but is, in fact, I think only three). Meanwhile, it presents the hopelessly optimistic sprite of the title as a smirking, overly worldly foster kid who has far too cutting an awareness of political bullshit not to call it out when she sees it, and whose moments of gee-whiz innocence are far too few between, though Wallis excels at them. And everything around Annie herself is curdled and toxic, the ultimate expression of a world where everybody is plugged-in and hyper-aware and eager to prove it by being the most jaded person in the room. Centering itself around a businessman-turned-NYC-mayoral-candidate who first uses Annie as a PR prop - a development that even the designated decent human being on his campaign staff, Grace (Rose Byrne), signs up for without a second's hesistation - is hardly the stuff of ennobling the human spirit. There's a savviness that borders on cruelty threaded throughout the movie, and if bringing Annie into the 21st Century meant stranding her amidst so much internet-enabled irony (Twitter and Instagram culture are the focal points of the car chase climax in this telling), it had been better that she was left to her sugary innocence in the '30s.
So anyway, beyond that, it's just normal kids' movie wish-fulfillment boilerplate, though as I think of it, the strain of live-action kids' movie that this represents isn't so common anymore that "boilerplate" feels right. But anyway, Annie crosses paths with venal cell phone magnate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a name that's at least no worse than Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks, his analogue from the original show and the vintage comic strip it was based upon. He and his even more venal campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) latch onto Annie like a pair of lampreys, spiriting her away from the most venal of all, opportunistic alcoholic foster mother Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), and in the process, finding that Stacks has a soul after all. As does Hannigan, in a new character redemption that the script does not the slightest damn thing to earn.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this, other than some offensively sloppy, mismatched editing, and Gluck's flaccid, detached directing, which leaves all the actors other than Wallis stranded. Diaz's hammy villain turn is enormous and unchecked enough to pick up a kind of dark energy of its own, but Foxx, Byrne, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (on-hand to play the wise smiling black man in a film whose two lead characters are already African-Americans, which is just weird), and especially Cannavale are pinned to the screen like dying moths. Bored dying moths, who transparently don't care about their line readings or motivations. The movie has major problems even when Annie is around, but it is a dessicated corpse whenever she's not, and that happens more in this retelling than in the original version.
All of which doesn't even mention the music, which is ordinarily a thing that we care about in musicals. Annie takes an already dubious score and strangles it to death by refocusing it from Broadway-style book numbers to ghastly overproduced pop song arrangements, with the lyrics changed wholesale (hope you're not a fan of "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here", because it is now unrecognisable), or simply tweaked enough to make them generic tunes that have only a thready connection to the narrative development (as happens to "It's the Hard-Knock Life", which now doesn't set the scene so much as it reminds the audience that Jay-Z - one of the movie's producers - did that thing that one time). But the words are nothing compared to the grating sonic assault that the soundtrack has been turned into, a whirlwind tour of everything that is worst in contemporary pop music, with the whole cast run through autotune so much that it's no longer possible to tell if they're human or not. Except for Foxx, permitted to croon all his songs using the silky smooth tones of an R&B singer, something would sound fine if it was even slightly appropriate for this material. Outside of the punchy surrealism of "Little Girls" (warbled badly by Diaz), the staging is uninspired and badly choreographed, with a persistent weird hang-up on having the young characters do a bunch of clapping and chest slapping. And while Wallis's cheery attitude is a lifesaving element in the middle of so much obnoxiousness, she's terrible at lip-syncing, sucking the last tiny molecule of pleasure out of the songs.
There are deeper depths to which children's cinema can sink - this blog has too recently hosted reviews of the later two parts of the Alvin and the Chipmunks trilogy for me to pretend that Annie is some kind of once-in-a-lifetime disaster. But oh God, its sucks. Take out Wallis, and it instantaneously becomes one of the most hateful, ill-made studio pictures of the year. With her and her upbeat presence, there's enough sociological force and enjoyable attitude to keep it from being a completely repugnant, useless experience - but only just.